Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Might Have Been

Thinking about what might have been in Jane Eyre (and Little Women, Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and The Golden Compass) last week made me like George Bilgere's poem "Casablanca" even better this week:

Last night I saw Casablanca again,
following it like an old song
as it touched on all the familiar notes
of passion, betrayal, and death,

sweeping me along as helplessly
and willingly as it did the first time.

Once more I lamented
the lovers' lost idyll in Paris,
once more I sweated out with them
the approaching thunder of the Occupation,

and once more I felt the sweet relief
as the Nazis arrived at the airport
a split-second too late

to stop Bergman and Bogart
from climbing aboard the shining airplane
and rising toward freedom in a driving rain.

It's the same feeling I have every time
I come to the end of Othello,
when the Moor listens to Iago's
outrageous insinuations in utter disbelief
before having him whipped and imprisoned for life,

and then embarking with Desdemona
on a honeymoon cruise through the Aegean.

Or when, in the final, grainy frames,
the handsome young President in the open car
kisses Jackie with unabashed vigor,

and all the spectators on the grassy knoll
put down their cameras for a moment
and burst into spontaneous applause
as the limo returns triumphant to the airport.

It's like that giddy feeling I had,
that sense of having stepped from a cave
into a bright meadow full of flowers,
when the doctors announced
that the looming gray mass on my mother's spine
had turned out to be nothing more
than a harmless flyspeck on the negative,

a feeling of pure, high-octane joy
of the sort I haven't experienced
since the day my wife came back to me in tears,

begging me to forgive her
for even considering the possibility
of leaving me. And of course I forgave her,

and held her for a long time
before taking her out to Mario's,
where we like to go on Friday night,

and the waiter brought us to our usual table
and the evening ended as evenings do

when there's been a little too much wine,
and the woman is very beautiful
and a sudden rain makes everything shine.

I especially like how the speaker's regret for his wife is the culmination of the poem, because in so many of the other poems in the volume (Haywire), there's a bitter, cynical attitude about why she left and how useless it is to wish for a different outcome to the marriage.

And yet, I still wish. Do you? Wouldn't you, just once, like to see the young couple at the door of the Frankenstein castle in the middle of the night look at each other and say "why are we about to knock on the door of this creepy place? Let's go." Wouldn't you like to see Romeo mourn for just a few more minutes? Wouldn't it be nice to see Mayella and Arthur find each other and live happily ever after, not even noticing how Tom Robinson lives his life down the road? Well, okay. In Mary Poppins' terminology "Maybe that's going a bit too far" (in the movie Bert replies "Indubitably").

Is it only tragedies that make us long for what might have been? Have you ever turned a story over and over in your mind searching for a way out?


Anonymous said...

That's a beautiful poem! It reminds me of Billy Collins, my favorite poet, mostly in the way that the language is so simple and direct. I like poetry where the challenge isn't trying to figure out what the words mean, but what the poem as a whole is trying to tell you.

After I finished The Time Traveler's Wife this summer, I spent a while trying to figure out if the story could have gone differently, but of course there really isn't a way in that one.

Anyway, thanks for the beautiful poem!


Anonymous said...

This is a very moving poem. It doesn't make me think about alternate endings for tragedy, though, nearly as much as it makes me feel how so much of life is about the effort (or the fortune) to stay on the tightrope, if that makes sense. I'm a little sleep-deprived, though, so it's quite possible it doesn't!

Jeanne said...

Oh yeah, thinking about time travel in terms of what might have been requires a special vocabulary, like in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
"One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history - the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.
The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.
Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.
The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstration, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be."

Jeanne said...

Siren: It makes sense to me that the tightrope is real life, while the "familiar notes" are fiction. Much as I might like it, Othello never does discern that Iago is lying. Romeo can never wait. Antony's Cleopatra, though--she is eternally full of "infinite variety."

lemming said...

Romeo is a sop and a git and got what he deserved, IMHO.

I wish for different endings in history, but rarely in fiction. It would have been nice if Lilian Jackson Braun had written Polly out a few books earlier, perhaps.

Year and years ago I saw a PBS dramatization of a short story called "the Music of Chance" with James Spader and Mandy Patinkin. I did and do wonder how else it could have transpired and ended, and assume that the film and story are similar, don't know.

Jeanne said...

Lemming, I'd never heard of The Music of Chance, but when I looked it up, the trailer and reviews say it's about luck and destiny, so it might be the ultimate example of a story about what might have been.

Aside from The Lady or the Tiger, that is.

CSchu said...

Oh. I especially liked this blog entry. I don't have anything intelligent to say about it, but it really was wonderful to read it. (Reading this over, I see the great glass of wine that I just drank. But nevertheless... GREAT entry.)